Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Vexing texting

Just before sharing a book talk about Jeff Zentner's Goodbye Days, I polled three classes of eighth graders whom I teach.

"How many of you have sent a text message recently?" I asked. At least three-quarters of their ~80 hands went up.

"How many of you have seen someone else send a text recently?" Most hands raised.

"How many of you have texted or seen someone send a text while in a car?" Similar show as prior question.

"How many of you have seen the driver send or receive texts?" More than half of hands up.

Seems like, drivers, we could improve the example that we're setting for young people -- at least until the autonomous vehicles pull up to the curbs of the future.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Pedestrian lesson

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." --Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

As an English teacher, I regularly deal in metaphor, which perhaps explains why taking something too literally on Monday morning felt both delightful and more-than-a-little transgressive.

I was shuffling the short distance from the bus stop to school in the chill December dawn when I noted a thin layer of overnight snow coated the sidewalk. It was early enough that I was just the second person to traverse the white canvas. The heavy tread of someone else's bootprint made this case plainly.

An unexpected compulsion throbbed through me: I needed to walk in those same steps. I wasn't being followed, nor trying to conceal how many of me there were; I just had to do this. So, I adjusted my stride to let my foot land on top of the next print. Each step following suit, a smidgen shorter than my natural gait, I made my awkward way along the walk. Turns out occupying someone else's shoes -- just the outline of them, really -- is hard, uncomfortable work.



Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Road-trip notes

A drive to Crested Butte, Colorado around Thanksgiving illustrated the familiar adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the change column, a roadside barbecue joint -- landmark in its own right -- had ceased operation since our last time through. The Hog Heaven sign now read, disappointingly, "Salon."

In the unchanged column, the top of Monarch Pass remains treacherous. I remember on a previous trip the fast flashing headlights of an oncoming car going down the pass while we headed up. We slowed in response, rounding a sharp corner to see a car flipped over, the victim seemingly of excess speed meeting black ice. The car's passengers had extricated themselves and appeared okay as they shakily waved other traffic past the flares hissing in the highway. Fast forward to this Sunday at the identical spot, another car now flashing its déjà-vu brights. (In fairness to the Fates, we were now driving east rather than west.) Turns out that same shaded curve had claimed another casualty, this time the car, tires still touching pavement, had spun around a different axis and into a snow bank.

So the journey is marked in memories, increments, and sometimes constants.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Wise Man's Ear

I'm not a big reader of fantasies, but when I do commit to that genre, I go big. That's how I find myself over 900 pages into the second book in Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man's Fear.

I read the similarly-sized opener, The Name of the Wind, a couple of years back, taking a series break thereafter. On occasion, I would check the local library's holdings for book #2, yet it always proved to be borrowed. I resisted placing a hold as I prefer to let serendipitous discovery govern most of my reading life. I waited patiently, not unlike the series' main character, an innkeeper with more backstories than I can count.

June found me in a second-hand bookstore where the book and I intersected. I made my purchase even as I knew I wasn't ready to start it at that moment. (Readers always makes plans!) It sat on my shelf for two months of prime summer-reading time.

In August, a chance encounter on a street corner with a long-lost grade school classmate unexpectedly led to chatting about the series. "The second book is better than the first," my friend wrote. "The series is a deep contemplation on the nature of stories and storytelling." Not a hook I could resist for long...

I'm happy to report: The novel is delivering on his promise. It also turns out to be a deep contemplation on teaching and learning, which brings me to another crossroads, where the book, a follow-up conversation with my friend, and my professional life intersect. If we are the stories we tell and coining new stories has inherent power to change us, I would do well to listen better to what my students narrate -- both to the world and themselves. "Only that which bends can teach," says Vashet, one of many literal teachers in The Wise Man's Fear, reminding me to bend my ears when school resumes next week.

Friday, November 16, 2018

#MyRelaxing5

Who doesn't appreciate a blogging challenge that's a well-timed kick in the writing pants? Well, Mari Venturino, #sunchatbloggers instigator in residence, launched a digital gauntlet for five self-care techniques, and I'm ready to answer her call with #MyRelaxing5:
  1. Run somewhere. Trails clear of wintry residues prove excellent for clearing my mind.
  2. Cook something. When school tumult has spiraled well beyond my control, I retreat to the kitchen where more-or-less precise applications of ingredients, utensils, and temperatures can generate reassuringly predictable results.
  3. Travel somewhere. Escaping my usual frame of reference offers welcome perspective -- on what I'm taking for granted, but shouldn't, as well as anything that might be bugging me, but needn't.
  4. Read something. Losing myself in others' stories has been a fine and long-time way for me to unwind.
  5. Ski somewhere. 'Tis just about the season in these parts, for an activity that helps me connect with friends and focus for a few hours on dancing down the slanted expanse of white in front of me.
There you have my five leading self-care habits. Your results may vary.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

World's youngest youngster?

My wife and I took a walk Sunday. It was snowing, and we needed a new disposal to replace an old, leaky unit, so we turned the chore into an excursion, rewarding ourselves en route with lunch out.

Leaving the restaurant, we bundled up against the elements -- knit hats on, puffy hoods up, jackets zipped. We pushed through the door, into the squall, which brought us face to face with a little girl solidly in her single digits, accompanied by (I'm guessing) her dad.

"Hey," she shouted, though we stood close to each other. "Hey," she repeated, now pointing at us. "It's not winter yet, you know."

Um, we knew, and we still like your pluck in the face of Mother Nature's might.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

World's oldest youngster?

I glanced from my book to see a kid board the bus. He looked in age fairly new to the realm of double digits. He wore a red and heather hoodie and high socks to just below his knees; had a slim, black Under Armour pack slung over both shoulders; carried a zippered binder by its handle in his left hand.

Outside, it was raining steadily, lightly.

"You like this kind of weather?" the bus driver asked the boy.

Conditioned by my experiences working with middle-schoolers, I braced for the boy's mumbled one-word answer. What he said instead was, "I do, yes, but sitting out in it isn't all that pleasant. I like the dreariness of it."

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Play, bawl

Over the last week, I traded in some sleeping for watching Major League Baseball's World Series. The games proved fictional coach Jimmy Dugan wrong: There is crying in baseball.

Especially among Red Sox pitchers: Rick Porcello cried; David Price cried, twice.

Here's what Price said after the clinching game, as reported by The Ringer: “My confidence was never altered through however many seasons I’ve been to the playoffs, however many times I’ve failed in October, however many times I failed in the regular season or against the Yankees. I always had belief in myself and my abilities.”

Growth mindset? Doesn't seem so. Rather, another way to think about the ace's irrational confidence may be as his fixed mindset hardening into an irresistible force, his gritty tenacity fueling dogged repetition more-so than resilient growth. Or what if he's an exception that proves a learning rule, smashing up against failure until he broke through while others might instead grow and change?

Check out this advice his college pitching coach gave him over a decade ago: "You never need to change the way that you play this game." Compare that to the prevailing flavor these days in education... Almost makes me want to cry.


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Time slips three times

I.
I'm out for dinner Sunday with an out-of-town friend I haven't seen in years. "Hey, Mr. Rozinsky," a voice says from next to our table. It belongs to a fellow diner who also happens to be a student I taught in sixth grade, now well into his college education.

II.
Monday morning, I'm wiping down classroom desks to remove lingering dry-erase residue. I flash back to when I was in sixth grade, and my math teacher would so obsessively disinfect her space that it forever reeked of Lysol.

III.
After desk duty, I'm moonlighting as a doorstop outside my classroom when an eight grader I taught two years ago walks past on his way to first period. In tones of mock incredulity, he's saying to another student, "This is what happens when I care about something: I actually put something into it." Sounds about right, based on how I remember him.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A tale of two parsnips

My inner word-imp wants to start today's botanical blog with: It was the best of thymes, it was the worst of thymes. Instead, let's start with a picture:
Both parsnips in this paltry still-life arrived in my possession a week apart, the fruits (??) of the last harvests from a six-month Community Supported Agriculture share -- a.k.a. CSA. The one on the top is more than eight days out of the ground; the one on the bottom, just two. Of greater importance, the bottom one had be to hustled to safety ahead of a forecast freeze, plus what totaled at least six inches of snow. I presume that meant all farmhands on deck, getting veggies from the earth before it started turning solid under the season's first white blanket. The harvesting push left less labor for getting the crop clean; hence, one parsnip dirtier than the other.

My take-away: When we inevitably face circumstances beyond our control, doing the best we can will need to be good enough.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Sausage party

American poet John Godfrey Saxe -- not Otto von Bismark -- deserves credit for this observation comparing legislating with charcuterie: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”

I thought of these well-traveled words this past weekend. On the day that the U.S Senate confirmed Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court, I stood in a friend's backyard ready to make bratwurst. (For the record, the concurrent scheduling of these events was coincidental, rather than intentional political commentary.)

After milling about and ice breaking among friends of friends who didn't all know each other, we were summoned to action by our host. My first job landed me on the mixing station where I plunged my well-washed hands -- soaped and rinsed all the way up to the elbows -- into a huge plastic tub of ground pork, eggs, dry milk, and secret spices. I squished those ingredients into a homogeneous mixture, and then I cleaned my hands again, thoroughly. (Having stashed my filigreed wedding ring in my jeans pocket before getting to work proved to be an inspired move.)

On to the manufacturing station next. I teamed with four other volunteers to form an assembly line. One of us took responsibility for gathering softballs of raw meat to thwack into a metal cylinder. (I learned that the 'thwack' was essential in knocking air pockets out of the meat since those could compromise effective loading.) Once the cylinder had been fitted into the stuffing apparatus and the casing gently twisted onto the extruder (my job), the slow methodical cranking could begin. This soon forced ground meat uniformly into the casing, which I coaxed and fed forward to the next two teammates -- one partner using a pin to prick holes in lingering bubbles, saving us from unsightly explosions once on the grill; the other partner working quickly to twirl the sausage snake into equivalent links. This process ran for about two hours, yielding a couple hundred tube-steaks.

I'm glad I got to see (and join in) this sausage being made as I actually gained more respect for the process. My feelings about our legislators, in comparison, may be for the (um) wurst.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Two reactions and a postscript

I was on an airplane last week when I noticed, just above my appropriately upright and locked tray table, a small sticker. The sticker sat below a vertical plastic slot in the seat-back in front of me where rested an in-flight magazine (one of its crossword puzzles half done), along with two pamphlets -- one pushing snacks for purchase and a credit card invitation; the other offering safety information for the aircraft in which I sat. For the record, there was also one air-sickness bag, unused. I now noticed one sticker on every seat-back within view. Each said, "Literature only."

My first reaction was to scoff: "Literature?" I thought haughtily. "Hardly."

I'm prouder of my next reflection. "Literature? Why shouldn't it be? The more avid and aspiring readers alike get comfortable with literature as the name for texts that might pull their attention for serious or frivolous reasons, emergencies or diversions, or just by being at hand, the better. Literature need not exist just in its distant, daunting capital L iteration that stultifies too many students in schools. Before the plane even reached its cruising altitude, I had chosen to welcome these connotation complications.

P.S. Apology. Again, William Carlos Williams

I have finished
the crossword
that was in
the seat-back

and which
you were probably
anticipating
yourself

Forgive me
it was diverting
squares white
and now filled

Monday, September 24, 2018

Lunch-duty ditty

To the tune of Van Halen's "Jump"

We head out
A football zings past our crowns
We've got it tough
With tweens running all around
And we know, kids, just how you feel
We've got to roll with the punches until it's dismissal

Ah, can't you see us standin' here
We've got our mouths busy scarfin' protein
Amid this rambunctious scene
Marked by shaky hygiene

Ah
It's time to duck (duck)
Safest to duck
Go ahead an' duck (duck)
Go ahead and duck

Ow oh
Hey you
Who threw that?
Kid, what's your game?
You say you don't know
You won't know until you can aim

So can't ya see us standing here
We've got our mouths sipping cold, old caffeine
Amid this rambunctious scene
So far from being serene

Ah
It's time to duck (duck)
Safest to duck
Go ahead an' duck (duck)
Go ahead and duck...


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Five ways of looking at MTSS

MTSS stands for multi-tiered system of supports, and it's especially on my mind after Monday's in-service sessions aimed at professional learning. With apologies to poet Wallace Stevens who managed 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, I've manage less than half that. However, thanks to the quotable advice of writer Joan Didion -- who said, "I write to entirely find out what I'm thinking" -- I'm going to consider those ways in this blog.

1. Change is abundant where I teach: new schedule, new communication tools fronted by a new website, and what feel like new ways to navigate MTSS. This year, this makes me feel like a camel being heaped with straw. Rather than one reed at a time, the loading is happening by the bale.

2. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the context for MTSS change is unsettling. Current colleagues I know and respect have already begun crunching practical numbers in their heads and on backs of handouts to estimate what they predict it will take to execute MTSS plans, as we've heard them so far. These numbers feel neither manageable, nor sustainable, given currently available resources. These colleagues reached similar conclusions when analyzing the proposal to change our school schedule from seven periods to eight, and immediate hindsight seems to be proving them right.

3. This matrix showing a calculus of complex change sums up the current dynamics pointedly:


Based on what I heard Monday, I believe we need more of the four elements that follow (and bolster) vision; the sooner, the better, to alleviate the confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, and false starts experienced with only vision to guide us at this point.

4. Colorado's State Department of Education defines MTSS this way: "a prevention-based framework of team-driven data-based problem solving for improving the outcomes of every student through family, school, and community partnering and a layered continuum of evidence-based practices applied at the classroom, school, district, region, and state level." Meanwhile, a former colleague who shall remain anonymous commented from afar, "’I'm pretty sure MTSS isn’t real. As far as I can tell, every principal in the country is 'going to be implementing it soon, but don’t worry, it’s not actually that different from what we’re already doing.' "

5. A line from a book I've been rereading, Siddhartha, also sticks with me from Monday: "[Y]ou know that gentleness is stronger than severity, that water is stronger than rock, that love is stronger than force." (119-20)

So what am I thinking? I think I'll try flowing with change via curiosity; I can wonder about it, hopefully as I move closer to accepting it. This questioning stance can help me understand where colleagues are coming from, to test their ideas politely and in the process help strengthen or refine them. I can share the Ambrose infographic with school leaders to see how their view of MTSS implementation jibes with these findings and what we might learn usefully from the comparison. I can probe the state's vague verbiage to determine what it might mean for students at the school where I teach; I can also smile at the lived truth resonating through my former colleague's words. Lastly for now, I can speculate how MTSS might differ if one of the S's stood for Siddhartha.

I can also ask educators who read this blog what MTSS-related wins you're willing to share that I can relay to my team. Thanks for any insights or inspiration you can offer...

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Spell Czech

Having finished responding this weekend to students' first formal batch of writing, I noticed one unexpectedly frequent feedback comment popping up: "Commonly confused word." For these accomplished eighth-grade writers, my goal was to tap into a phrase they'd likely heard earlier in their middle-school careers in reference to homonyms. I wanted students to look twice at words I'd spotlighted this way in their Google Documents, tilt their heads questioningly, and realize they had the right sounding term, but not yet spelled accurately for the context. (If I'm being honest, I probably did an actual or internal eye roll -- Why can't they see? -- each time I felt compelled to add this comment.)

Cut to class time when a student flagged me down: "Mr. Rozinsky, check this out." She proceeded to type this sentence, "I saw you exit your screen..." By this point, her eyes were on me as Google's auto correct swapped the possessive 'your' for the contraction 'you're.' "It's not my fault," she said. "I'm trying to do the right thing, but Google won't let me."

"Time for us to be smarter than this Chromebook," I said gamely -- or wished I'd said. We browsed the word processor's Tools menu, but initially came up empty. We ran a few quick help searches, eventually finding what we needed; turns out it was in the Google Documents' Tools menu, under Preferences... a long list of automatic substitutions, including several commonly confused words. I advised the student to disable the mindless your/you're correction in favor of her brain's savvier system. I left her to prune the rest of these not-so-smart settings as she saw fit.

Score one, for now, for actual over artificial intelligence.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Slice-ycle, continued

Alternate Title: Flattery (Ahem) Will Get You Nowhere

I had rolled my bike with more difficulty than usual across the grassy field. "You're just tired," I told myself to dismiss the added effort. When I started to pedal homeward an hour later, I realized that the rear tire was -- and had been -- completely flat. Thankfully, a public bus provided adequate back-up transportation.

Having secured requisite repair items a few days later, I set about changing the flat. I located the culprit: a large screw buried up to its head, which I extricated from both tire and tube. I scrunched a new tube home, seated the tire, and pumped in air. I reveled in being back in pedaling business until the next morning when I tested the tire with a squeeze that revealed disappointing softness. I wallowed in a few moments of frustration, and then I repeated the changeover process with a fresh tube. This time, I tried to be more thorough by feeling around the inside of the tube for further vexations. I found one I had not detected previously, when the screw had seemed like the low-hanging (and only) fruit. My finger now felt something poking out, thorn-like, from the inside of the tire. With pliers, I tweezed out what appeared to be a tiny metal hair and finished the fix. The tire seemed reassuringly firm the next morning, so I rode. A quarter mile from my destination, however, the back-end of the bike clanked, followed by the uncomfortable grind of wheel rim on pavement. Another flat.

For the third and proverbially charmed time, I took the bike to a professional, explaining my saga so far. The mechanic set me up with a thicker thorn-proof tube and proclaimed both rim and tire free of any threats. So far, so good -- if only because I now carry a spare tube, pump, and tire irons with me on each commute.

Some morals of the story: Pay attention because the obvious problem may not be the only problem, and, should problems persist, consider inviting in outside eyes. Bringing in a professional, though, doesn't absolve us of responsibility to control what we can control.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Hashtag hatching, continued

This blog entry could be subtitled: one upside of Twitter.

A month ago, I wrote about coining a hashtag as part of an effort to build a middle-school reading community. The first of those readers began contributing last week, and this slice documents what happened next.

I'd describe the whole endeavor as cautious toe-dipping into the shallow (though still potentially deep) end of social media. My students are mostly younger than 13, so they have the option to post via my Twitter handle as proxy. Two students accepted this invitation within 24 hours of me extending it, and one of those wrote to a favorite reread: Ingrid Law's middle-grade fantasy, Savvy. 'It' wrote back!

Having responded to clarify the quirks of Robert speaking through my account, I figured there was little risk in pushing the dialogue further. See, Robert and I had been talking in class about how the Savvy series is one of his favorites, which made it feel hard to try other titles for fear that they would only disappoint him. He wasn't ready to embrace that risk. I hoped an invitation from a beloved author might encourage him, so I asked. Once more, a gracious response!



Needless to say, Robert's reading life just became a little more energized. I've experienced more than once how Twitter, among other platforms, helps make connections like this possible. Though the milieu's not all peaches and cream, sometimes it can be.

Mean time, if you'd like to explore 100 Best Middle Grade Fantasy Books of the Last 10 Years, well, that digital gift just keeps on giving.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Slice-ycle

Three scenes from the week in biking...

My wife grinding her mountain bike up a steep hill one persistent crank at a time, showing my skeptical brain that it can be done.

A swarm of youngsters after school, buzzing around my electric bicycle locked to its rack -- pushing buttons, turning lights on, dinging the bell, giggling in between infectious 'Oohs' and 'Ahs.'

Woman in backwards baseball cap, resting her skateboard on its tail as she confronts a lycraed cyclist on the multi-use path. The only snippet I hear from her as I pedal past: "But you have brakes, so it's easier for you."

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Litany of changes

The school schedule where I teach used to be seven periods; now it's eight. We used to spend 240 minutes per week with each class; that total's now 225.

We're figuring out how to navigate and use a new school website at the same time the district has rolled out refreshed technology. Our desktops or laptops have been replaced by Chromebooks.

The faces of students this August look so different from the ones I remember from May, yet not so different from Augusts past.

Of course, change can create door-opening excitement. It can also roil. Today's weather -- both external and internal -- felt stormy. One thing I know for certain in these parts: it'll change.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

First-day field trip

Monday represented a first on my 23rd first day of the school year, wearing teacher shoes. Colleagues and I were pre-arranged in groups for our initial staff meeting, and we were given marching orders: Visit one student at home along with at least one family member for about 20 minutes to see how they're feeling about the start of school, to get to know them a little better on their home field, and to find out if they needed any additional support before classes next week. Each destination family had been set up in advance.

So, the orchestra teacher, a science teacher, and I all piled into the assistant principal's car (because I had taken the bus to work and the two other personal vehicles were both coincidentally loaded with mattresses). We made our way to the next town over from school. There, we met a beaming sixth-grader and her mother. New to our learning community, they had several questions about which they were curious, and we could see the girl's shoulders visibly ease as a clearer picture of what her school future might look like began to develop. We learned about her, too, in an informal, relaxed way that even the best classroom icebreakers would never quite match.

Back at school after an hour, we compared experiences with colleagues, trading observations that might be useful to others in the teaching team and also stepping back to reflect on this new step interacting with our community. While this was a first, the positive outcomes left me feeling confident it's an event that deserves to be repeated.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Charting a course: learning vs. learned

The subtitle of this blog entry captures an idea I heard from English teacher Monte Syrie in Washington state. Contributing long-distance to a panel in Colorado discussing alternatives to traditional grading, Monte sketched an idea he plans to focus on in 2018-19: favoring learning as an ongoing, continuous, present-tense process over the notion that content can be learned (that is to say, mastered) with past-tense finality. Monte's words have been niggling my brain for a week.

As part of preparing for the imminent school year, I started sifting standards for two of the courses I'll teach. Loose units began to coalesce around these standards, with areas of focus for reading, writing, and speaking. Still, the past-tenseness of the standards irked me in ways it never had before -- the proclamations about mastery seemed more mirage than meaningful. The standards make shiny targets, but they're of debatable worth for every single student in my care: compliance as fool's gold.

Consider representative eighth-grade reading standards like these: "I read to find and record information. I sequence or outline events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning."

For students who aren't yet reading like that when warranted, how might standards like these better point readers to incremental ways forward? And for students who have already performed as such readers, what then?

What if I were to revise course standards foregrounding growth? Here's one draft using the above examples, with emphasis added: "I read to find and record information more efficiently. I sequence or outline increasingly complex events in note form. I paraphrase or summarize a variety of readings, spotlighting relevant learning more concisely."

Might students and I be able to use standards like those to meaningfully distinguish how readers are progressing or, if they're stalled, how to get their reading lives moving again?

I'm reminded of micro-progressions that I learned about two summers ago during a #cyberPD book study of DIY Literacy. (Tricia Ebarvia sums up this structure in her blog here.) I posit that rungs on a micro-progression might enable growth momentum, helping students and me hash out what progress along the continuum of a particular standard looks like; or when particular students reach the envelope's edge, how we might push it in service of literacy that knows no -- or fewer -- limits.

Now, my leading worry: Once past the heady, often hermetically sealed days of back-to-school planning, these ideas may prove to be pipe dreamy or too murky to implement in a world still governed by black-and-white grades. (For the record, I've got thoughts there, too. Inspired by California educator Mari Venturino, I'm considering tweaking her mastery tasks as growth challenges that will yield a body of evidence that bridges us to grades.)

This is a path I see value in exploring, and I'm stating my in-progress thinking here because I welcome feedback and/or push-back from you. What do you see down this road I'm imagining? How much here might be specific to English Language Arts versus having commonalities with other disciplines? If you've been down any part of this road before, what's it like, and what should I know that I don't?

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Professional learning post-mortem

Monday, 7/30/18, 9:57 p.m. MT

By the time you read this, I'll be done freaking out.

See, I'm trying something I've never done before: I'm leading a small panel as part of a district professional-development day (#innovateBVSD). One local colleague and three Twitter connections accepted my invitation to participate. We're planning to swap ideas about the current state of grades, grading, and assessment in our -- and our students' -- respective worlds, and we're going to see what other educators in the area are doing and/or wondering about these critical topics on the verge of a new school year.

These can be topics fraught with both meaning and baggage. Probing them often involves questioning school status-quo, which explains one source of my anxiety. At the same time, I'm trying to imagine (or not imagine) the litany of technical and logistical difficulties that might befall juggling face-to-face participants with those joining remotely via Google Meet. "What could go wrong?" I wonder. "What couldn't?" my inner defensive pessimist jibes.

And yet, I'm excited, too: for dialogue, for collaboration, even for the mundane chance to attach voices and faces to what have until now felt like wise, disembodied avatars in my learning network. Stay tuned for what happens next...

Tuesday, 7/31/18, 9:42 p.m. MT

So. five of us formed a panel this afternoon. Sarah and I were there as flesh and blood while Carla, Amy, and Monte had their mortal coils rendered digitally from afar. The rendering worked pretty well, with sometimes spotty audio. The thinking we shared along with contributions from a dozen participants was anything but spotty in my opinion. In fact, I expect the ways our thinking converged -- across roles, levels taught, physical distance -- are going to stick with me for a while.

There was Sarah making the case for students' integral roles in the assessment process, in particular how that's borne out word-for-word in our district's teacher-evaluation criteria. There was Monte sketching out his distinction between the value in students' ongoing learning versus the finality of what they've learned in the past tense. Mastery, he suggested, might be more mirage than construct worthy of aspiration. There were Amy and Sarah, both, tying Monte's thread to the notion of growth and wondering how our reporting responsibilities as teachers might accommodate that shifty moving target. There was Carla championing portfolios as a potential bridge in this endeavor. There was Kelly noting her own child's ambivalence about changing the game of school that he's in the middle of playing even as Kelly's professional side endorses alternative instructional paradigms. There was Kiffany wishing for innovative efforts in higher education that might lever change throughout PK-12 systems. There were more thoughts, too, of which I know I lost track, but Sarah wrote down a bunch. There was also frustration expressed with traditional applications of grades, apparent in this temperature check captured via AnswerGarden:



Our conversation lasted less than an hour, nowhere near enough time. I can still feel its ripples continuing to spread, and I realize my first sentence written 24 hours ago in this blog missed the mark. Now I'm freaking out for a new reason: There's so much more to do.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Hatching a hashtag

I read Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence this spring, thoroughly enjoying the librarian-author's apostrophes to formative books from her life. In planning for the coming school year, Spence's approach inspired me to use a similar structure with middle-school students as we develop our reading community.

My first draft mashed up a Google Form, Sheet, and Site with the help of Awesome Table -- a combination on which I've relied in the past. As a new wrinkle, I mused about how to connect student reviews with a wider audience, perhaps even including their favorite authors. Social media, particularly Twitter, has proven a positive outlet in that regard for me, so I added a choice in the form for students to republish their micro-letters as tweets.

Since Twitter's terms of service say users must be at least 13 and most of my students are not, I'll post reviews via my professional handle from those who opt in. (Class handles may someday prove worthwhile, but I'm not yet ready for that step.) I did capitulate, however, to the necessity for a hashtag that will help aggregate our work. And so, on Monday, #DearTitleHere was born -- both the feed and the site. I've seeded those with a few examples drawn from my summer reading, and I'll invite students to jump in next month.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Nonfiction mission

Summer reading this month has meant a nonfiction binge as the library, all at once, had five titles on my to-read list. About three weeks ago, I checked out Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, Ultimate Glory by David Gessner, When by Daniel Pink, The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. I made it through four and a half of them -- going to need to come back to Sapiens since my renewal efforts were blocked by an unwitting rival sapient who placed a hold on my copy.

My take-aways from this informational immersion? Justice, Frisbees, time, coffee, and the sweep of history should never be underestimated. More seriously, when we can hitch the horses of our intrinsic drive to a meaningful wagon of extrinsic sense-making, we can unleash heady momentum. Stevenson, a lawyer, did and continues to do this as he exhausts every legal means to ensure his clients -- often on death row -- are treated fairly before the law. What Stevenson pours into his clients, Gessner devoted for decades to chasing flying discs, subsuming all other priorities including growing up, and harboring few if any regrets for his efforts. For both Stevenson and Gessner, pivotal moments prove the outsized influence of timing, an observation with which Pink would agree, I suspect. He distills numerous research examples in his latest book to uncover why the cliche "Timing is everything" should more accurately read "Everything is timing," and then he teaches readers moves they might make to maximize their own time. In contrast, the protagonist in Eggers' literary biography, Mokhtar Alkhanshali, takes a while to maximize his time. He's a Yemeni American who (as the story spins) drifts shiftlessly through odd jobs until finding his life's calling in resurrecting the coffee trade in his family's homeland.

In preparing this slice, I discovered another knot that ties these books together. Alkhanshali, from The Monk of Mokha, was being sued as of May for allegedly shady business dealings in the import/export world, a fact which tends to smear Eggers' mostly noble portrait. It's not the first time Eggers has been in this position. A previous book he wrote, Zeitoun, spotlighted a heroic survivor of the Hurricane Katrina flood in New Orleans, a man later accused of -- and exonerated for -- attempting to murder his wife, a case that sounds like it might be right up Bryan Stevenson's alley.

These puzzling intersections bring us to Harari's Sapiens, with its ambitious reach in seeking to build a massive jigsaw of human impacts on Earth -- and Earth's impacts on humans -- over thousands of years in the planet's run of billions. My reading only took me as far as the agricultural revolution, and we know how much more has happened since. Still, I marvel at how Sapiens presents a simultaneously celebratory and damning picture of what we people have been up to and the consequences, both intended and otherwise, which keep coming to bear.


Three weeks and a pile of books later, my brain is full, my thinking clouded. I remain humble and grateful for the power of reading (and creative writers) to connect me with people, places, and ideas, whether physically or temporally far or near.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Take a hike

This Fourth of July led me to a back-country epiphany. My wife and I were hiking in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains for four days, spending part of each day traveling well-marked trails and (by choice) another part bushwhacking off trail. The on-trail time proved wonderfully scenic as this Exhibit A above Toxaway Lake demonstrates:

Being able to follow clearly demarcated and well-signed paths made for confident, decisive movement through sublime terrain. In comparison, off-trail adventures meant halting progress, occasional missteps, or even backtracking to find a better (read: passable) way. Given those avoidable difficulties, I've been reflecting since, why even bother leaving the path in the first place? My conclusion arrived via analogy -- concocted by my teacher brain, on the clock even in mid-summer.

The trail confers explicit directions, showing one way to proceed in all its glory, making each next step comfortingly obvious. It represents the direct instruction of the hiking world! In comparison, leaving the trail behind opens up new possibilities for simultaneous exploration and confusion. Bushwhacking is genius hour, or whatever name you want to brand open-ended inquiry. Getting from point A to point B or beyond becomes an unspecified puzzle versus connect-the-dots. That uncertainty can frustrate as well as invigorate, and I came to realize how much its enjoyment depends on all the paths I've walked before plus time spent with more-seasoned hikers who've shown me the way(s).

I'll close by repeating words from Marcia Tate that I shared less than a month ago: "If you're not modeling what you're teaching, then you're teaching something else." By way of my epiphany, I'll add: Model both how and why to stay on a particular path along with when and why to diverge where the trail hasn't yet been blazed.




Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Apologies, William Carlos Williams

For the wheelbarrow

How much depends
upon

a sulfured
spring

perched above
the river

beside the dark
mountains?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Great Googly moogly?

I, Willy Wonka, have decided to allow five children--just five, mind you, and no more--to visit my factory this year. These lucky five will be shown around personally by me, and they will be allowed to see all the secrets and the magic of my factory. (From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl)

I spent last Wednesday in one of Google's 'factories,' a sparkling new shop set up six months ago. A group of educators and I learned about Applied Digital Skills and had a tour of the Wonka-eque (Wonky?) premises.

The tour began in this forested lobby:
Our guide explained how each of the office's four floors revolved around a Colorado motif. Interestingly, we got the inside scoop that, while these are actual trees, they're not actually native aspens but birches, which hold up better indoors.

We took the stairs to the top story, a mountain-themed redoubt where Googlers can savor "vegetable-forward" breakfasts and lunches along with the view:











Around the corner, to capture the alpine feel, sat a couple of ski gondolas like this one:











They double as cones of silence for on-the-fly collaboration. More inside dope: Turns out retired Rocky Mountain gondolas were too pricey, so Google imported theirs from Europe.

On to Google's library, a quiet, darkened zone for reflective work. My irony detector, though, split the silence when I noticed one of the original search engines shelved in the home of our era's leading search engine:











Other floors nodded to the state's camping and mining past/present. Yes, there were also indoor gyms and a rock climbing wall thoughtfully stocked with "community shoes." (A group of fitness fanatics jogged past our tour, chugging down the stairs during their mid-day workout!) The first floor featured a bike shop, inaugurated to memorialize an employee who lost his life while pedaling, the victim of a hit-and-run.

The whole thing felt unreal, even with the very real presence of workers at desks clicking keyboards. I thought about nibbling-around-the-edges classroom redesigns (not to be under-rated, to be sure) even as my mind reeled at what Google had wrought from scratch for a reported $130 million.

I found uneasy the ease with which show and substance mingled. (Side note: Having read The Circle by Dave Eggers, this truth felt stranger than his fiction.) On one hand, strive for work-life balance, the facility announced; on the other hand, the corporate culture preached, don't stop working. As the tour guide summarized, "The people who fail in tech are the ones who are like, 'We did it.' " Instead, she described how workers here are never finished; they're always adapting. That sentiment felt like one touchstone of commonality in their professional experience and mine.

Time to cut off this slice. My irony detector is going off again as I finalize this writing via a Google product linked to my Google account.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pupu platter

I fell off the writing horse last week, and now I'm picking myself up along with fragments I've been gathering this June.

There's this chestnut from Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer:“Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach” (3), which makes me aspire to be a life-long student more than the tritely alliterative life-long learner.

Marcia Tate reminded me of what ought to be cardinal classroom rule: "If you're not modeling what you're teaching, then you're teaching something else."

Kristin Kochheiser tipped me off to Noisli, a tool I suspect might prove useful when students ask whether they may listen to music while they work.

Kevin Croghan pointed me towards the Glossary of Education Reform, so I'll never (hopefully) feel mugged by school jargon again.

Katie Wolfson introduced me to an intriguing question matrix (see second page) that I suspect may support students in generating their own better questions.

Joe Marquez showed me a more elegant shortcut to split-screen displays with the Dualless extension.

Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, taught me: "Just as flight simulators allow pilots to train safely, stories safely train us for the big challenges of the social world." (58)

And lastly, I learned that southwestern North Dakota is crawling with ticks, which might just be a topic for a later slice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

YOLO: A Reading Wars Story

The school year that just concluded put the idea of implicit bias on my radar. (A sentence that still feels slightly oxymoronic.) Then, last week, I finished Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, nonfiction about recent scientific research into how readers acquire those skills. Among the author's claims: “People are unreliable narrators of their own cognitive lives… Being an expert reader doesn’t make you an expert about reading.” (4) And: "A good teacher has to be a good observer to be sure... [yet] What people observe depends on what they already believe." (261) See: Confirmation Bias. Seidenberg proceeded to kick me right in the biases by highlighting how I emphasize comprehension with middle-school readers over phoneme/grapheme know-how. In Seidenberg's analysis, those latter elements deserve more conscientious attention for many who struggle to read efficiently because so-called basic skills turn out to be both trickier and more essential to master than they're credited. Seidenberg's leading impulse leans conservative as he suggests spending less time and energy defining literacy in broad, multiple, multimedia terms and more time shoring up the phoneme and grapheme pathways that interact synergistically with semantic understanding in the most adept readers. He makes a compelling, readable research-based case. Even if making meaning remains the prime reading purpose, in my view, perhaps kindling sound-letter skills, even for tweens and teens, can feed their comprehension fire.

In contrast to the unsettling pauses Language at the Speed of Sight gave me, my next summer read felt like a cozy blanket: Renew! by Shawna Coppola. The focus here is on writing, particularly in multiple and multimedia terms. As Coppola writes, ""With visual composition becoming ever more ubiquitous in our world outside of school...wouldn't it make sense to collectively broaden our idea of what it means to 'write' within school?" (43) Even as Coppola draws on numerous literacy luminaries to make this case, I keep hearing Seidenberg's voice in my other ear, how the education system is dysfunctional because of how its “Allegiance to great theorists of the past obviates the burden of engaging newer research.” (260) I wonder: What if my efforts to coach students to write more broadly is shortchanging their writing fundamentals, paralleling Seidenberg's main claim about much present-day reading instruction?

Even as I hold that question in my head, it doesn't feel true. A feeling that could benefit from bolstering. Given that I favor both/and pedagogies over spurious either/or dichotomies, I'd do well to marshal some scientific research in service of my inner Seidenberg. I should be better prepared to justify why I work with students the ways I do, how I see our work progressing towards more powerful literacy -- or literacies.

With such notions tumbling around my brain, I came across these lines Sunday in Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: "There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." (6)

Which leads to me a likely next step: I've started to see this summer-reading-enriched blog draft as tracing the gist of a professional mission statement a la Joy Kirr. More writing and rewriting (and reading!) to come...




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence 5

File this under first-world problems or world's mildest rant: I'm on an airplane, and the seat doesn't recline; in fact, the majority of the seats don't recline, and my understanding is that reclining is now (at least on one airline) among the services that can command a fee -- along with carrying on luggage, receiving food or drinks besides water, choosing where and next to whom one sits, and having additional legroom -- which qualifies as a disappointing development, in any world, even one where I'm miraculously whisked thousands of miles in mere hours.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Soup's IN

I ate my first soup dumpling more than 20 years ago in New York City. It was a culinary locked-room mystery: a supple pouch sealing in gingery broth and a porky filling. "How'd the soup get in there?" my fellow diners and I marveled. (Newsflash! Secret's out.)

Our memorable inaugural bite came at a joint whose reputation was built on their xiaolongbao, Joe's Shanghai, so when I left New York behind, I figured that meant soup dumplings, too.

Still, in these western parts, my comestible radar has detected their presence three times in the intervening decades. Expectations have been high on each occasion, mostly leading to disappointment -- dumplings that were insufficiently soupy or not hot enough, even a little rubbery.

Third time, though, was the Goldilocks charm last week. A new place right around the corner from home offers the closest approximation of the savory deliciousness I remember. Eat your heart out, Proust! You can have have your Madeleines; I'll be in the corner slurping from a deep spoon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Win - win

Students and I are running through the semester's end game, reviewing expectations for what they're collecting in their digital portfolios and how their grades will reflect those components, when eighth-grader Thomas speaks up. "I put together this spreadsheet if any of you are interested," he says, or words to that effect. "Let me know if you want me to share it. It can help you determine what you need to do to reach your grade goals."

I follow up with Thomas, and he shows me how his table crunches together individual elements to demonstrate whether students' standard-by-standard performance is or isn't on track for their desired finish line. (He's made a grade-book sandbox!) If a con in this system is some students calculating to the fraction of a point what's the least they need to do to achieve what they deem success, I figure the pro is more students feeling like savvy, informed players of the game. I'm calling Thomas' ingenuity and independence, not to mention willingness to share his hack with others, a win.

A second win reveals itself in a conference with another eighth grader, Evan. He's describing progress he's noticed this year in his speaking skills, and he reminds me of a connection we had talked about earlier between performing music (a passion of his) and making formal presentations at school. He tells me how it finally clicks for him: how he can get in a speaking 'zone' that resembles how he feels playing music. When it's time to speak in school, he's now less self-conscious as he lets his words, gestures, and voice work together more freely to convey his message. Even without a guitar, he channels the feeling of being a rock star who commands the stage. I'm calling that win number two.

While the ends of school years are frenetic, they're also time to celebrate learners who continue putting valuable pieces together. (Another Slice of Life blogger reminded me of that today.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Series of Simultaneously Unfortunate & Fortunate Events

I'm on a cross-country flight, unexpectedly.
I'm reading a book when the flight attendant announces the onboard wi-fi system isn't working, so all passengers may enjoy complimentary DIRECTV by way of apology.
I decide I'll check out the in-flight movies to see what's on that I might've missed in theaters.
I settle on "The Post."
I watch actor Tom Hanks playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee say, "The only way to assert the right to publish is to publish."
I reflect on how that's not only true in times of political crisis but also in humble matters of personal writing like blogging.
I write this and press a button that says Publish.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Defensive thriving

My wife and I built two pieces of Ikea furniture last week. As a defensive pessimist, I entered the experience determined to keep my expectations comfortably low.

Forty-five minutes spent on hold trying to pin down over the phone a delivery time left me stirred up by dire recordings. Improperly anchored furnishings, I was told repeatedly, might fall and crush me or those I loved. (Turns out this direness may be deserved given the scope of a nearly two-year-old recall...) Thankfully, our low-slung models provided little or no danger.

I proceeded to a new gripe. "There'll probably be pieces missing," I scoffed. Turns out there were, specifically the mattress for the bed, but my wife's persistence rectified that glaring oversight.

Our woes proved to be predictable and easily overcome:
  • One poorly machined screw that we could hand tighten in an easy-to-reach spot
  • Two metal rails whose screw holes didn't align with the unintuitive diagram ("Why don't they use words?" my wife asked.) until we realized that we needed to reverse their sides in the bed frame
  • Fabric wrinkles smoothing themselves out as we speak since we skipped the optional ironing step
We finished our projects slightly ahead of schedule -- a daybed, a desk, and our relationship intact. (Yay, zeugma!) Defensive pessimism never felt so good, or at least not so bad.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Triangle trade

I spent March writing daily as part of Two Writing Teachers' annual Slice of Life Story Challenge. Then, 11 days ago, I learned that luck broke my way: I'd be receiving, as a prize for my participation, a bundle of picture books donated by MacMillan Publishers. Those books turned up at school Monday in a burly bubble envelope. This morning, I felt the joy of dropping by our school library to donate the titles. Our librarian beamed as only librarians can in the presence of new books. She flipped through the pages; she gave them a smell; she pronounced herself delighted.

Let's stop and think about that for one more moment... The words I informally published in virtual spaces led to formally published words occupying actual spaces (and, hopefully soon, young hands), leading me to dream up yet more words to describe these dizzying literacy transactions.

One of those words ought to be: Thanks, directed at those who lead the TWT blog as well as the donors who've generously incentivized challenges.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Regimen meets regiments

The weather in these parts has lately served up (sporadic, unreliable) springtime, so I hopped on my bicycle to pedal to school Monday morning. Another factor in my favor: Multi-use paths web my town, and they're delightfully uncrowded around 6:30 in the morning. Usually.

First sign of trouble: A man standing on the side of the path holding what I surmised to be, as I whizzed by, a stopwatch. Having encountered this scenario before, I knew to expect runners. Seconds later, I came upon the first mob stampeding my way, wearing yellow t-shirts marked with big block blue letters: N-A-V-Y. The Reserve Officers' Training Corps from the nearby university was getting after it this morning. [Side note of interest to English teachers and other word nerds: Corps has the same form whether it's singular or plural, but the pronunciation varies from the singular kor to the plural korz.]

The side note is relevant because it turned out I had more corps with which to contend. [I will avoid a side note editorializing about stilted constructions that result from trying not end a sentence on a preposition.] Having just gotten clear of the yellow fellows, I noticed ahead a group of 50-plus in sporty garb massing impenetrably across the path. ("I need to get a bell," I thought to myself.) I shouted a hearty, "Good morning," which was answered by echoes of: "Bike!" "Bike!" "Bike!" The drab green sea then parted for me to coast through. [Side note: I'm leaving that last preposition right where it is.]

My bike and I gathered speed for a moment until we encountered a third battalion. These young soldiers had on full fatigues, heavy packs, and clomping boots that echoed mightily as they shuffled down the path in time.

"Might the Air Force be somewhere overhead this morning, unseen?" I wondered, picking up my own left-left, left-right-left cadence.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The temperature today

You know that temperature?

The one where it rains early -- snows even --
then clears by midmorning so the world feels rinsed shiny-clean
and the spring sun gleams impossibly bright?

The one where the air is Peppermint Patty cool,
yet you can still feel warm solar fingers on your face?

The one where, if you go out running on a trail that has just had enough time to dry out,
you can't keep from smiling.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Play ball or something else

Before I was a teacher, I was a sports writer, and I still have a softish spot in my heart for that section of the newspaper -- for newspapers as a whole, truthfully, give or take the business pages.

This appreciation for artful writing about games's predictable unpredictability lands April, with its sports smorgasbord, as my favorite calendar month. Among its offerings: the new professional baseball season being unwrapped even as the closing moments of March Madness overrun their eponymous bounds; top-level basketball and hockey leagues upshifting from tedious regular seasons to high-stakes playoffs; and football, which seems to lack any off season of note, ramping up to its annual draft. I might even turn half an eye to the Masters, though golf doesn't rate much above the business pages in my sometimes curmudgeonly estimation.

Yup, it's a heady month to be a sports fan.